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Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge are famously known as the Beekman Boys and the winners of The Amazing Race. When both Josh and Brent were laid off from their jobs and were facing a million dollar mortgage, they focused their full attention on turning their farm into a profitable business. They first started selling goat milk and goat milk soap products, but now they currently work with over 50 artisans and have their products featured in Target, Disney Resort, Anthropologie, and more. The guys talk to John on how they got started, important life lessons learned from their goats, utilizing their social media following to promote products, and so much more on today’s episode.
Pitching Yourself And Your Product – Interview with the Beekman Boys
Hi and welcome to The Successful Pitch podcast. Today’s guest are the fabulous Beekman Boys. You might know them as the winners of The Amazing Race. Josh Kilmer-Purcell, who was a former advertising executive, and Brent Ridge, who was Martha Stewart’s health and wellness expert, got laid off from their jobs and turned that around. They bought a goat farm in upstate New York and started selling soap from the goats. They have an incredible story of taking an idea and growing it and making it hugely successful.
There are over 50 different artisan products that they now sell on their website. Their products are carried in major department stores like Anthropologie and Target. They have great insights on how to get people to work together well, how to get people to say yes to what you’re offering, and how to work with your neighbors in a way that allows you to win every time. I think you are really going to enjoy this authentic, fun interview. Guys, welcome to the show.
Thanks so much for having us.
One of the things that really impressed me is that the strategies that you have for living your life is the strategy that allowed you to win the Amazing Race as well as the strategy that how you run your business. I’d love to have you guys just talk about those three things right off the get go.
I appreciate you calling it a strategy, because they weren’t very strategic, they just happened. In fact, they became a strategy. As you alluded to, when we lost our jobs and we had to find a way to save our farm, we learned a lot of things in that process and we learned that life actually can be pretty simple and that there are three rules that can get you through just about anything. Those three rules are: Work hard, never quit, and help your neighbor.
They seem really basic and they are really basic, but we guarantee you, if you apply them to any challenge in your life, you’ll come out better than where you started. I think the story we told about the Amazing Race was the most surprising application of those rules. Because when you’re competing for a million dollars, racing for a million dollars, the last thing you’d think you will do is help your neighbor. You’re competing against them.
But we had learned those strategies and they’d worked for us in life. So even on the race, we helped our competitors finish puzzles, we waited for them to finish their challenges, we helped them find clues. At the end of the day, I don’t know why that kept us in the game, but it kept us in the game until the very end and then we won. So it works.
That really is, as Josh said, it wasn’t something that we sat down beforehand and wrote down on paper and a business plan, here’s our strategy for growth as a company. Just to give your listeners who may not be familiar with our story a little bit of context, we’re two city guys. We had these great careers in the city.
As you said, I was working at Martha Stewart and Josh was an advertising executive. We bought this, at the time, it was an empty farm in this tiny little village, Sharon Springs, New York, about three and a half hours outside of New York, thinking it was just going to be our weekend getaway. We were going to do a little gardening and grow some food.
Shortly after we brought the property, a farmer who was losing the place where he had his goats wrote a note and put it in our mailbox and said, “I’m losing the place where I have my goats. Can I bring the herd to your farm to graze?” At that time, we just thought it’d be great to have a petting zoo. We said, “Sure, bring them.” The property had a caretaker’s house on it, so he moved in there. It was that openness and that willingness to bring him on that really ultimately was our saving grace.
That was in 2007. In 2008, we both lost our jobs during the recession and literally had a million dollar mortgage on the farm and no income coming in. For people who were working in media in New York City at that time, you could not see when the jobs were coming back.
Ever having a job again.
We became very close to losing the farm until we literally pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and said, “What are we going to do here to make this happen?” Sat out and said, “What do we have?” We have some marketing background, we’re relatively intelligent people, and we have goats. What can we do with that? We started making products using goat milk.
Started with goat milk soap and goat milk cheese and then started working with our neighbors who are also great artisans and craftspeople. Blacksmiths, weavers, potters. They were wonderful crafts people, but they didn’t know how to sell their wares to a wider audience.
We folded them under the Beekman 1802 umbrella and now we work with over 52 different artisans and selling to natural chains like Williams-Sonoma, Anthropologie, Bloomingdale’s, Target. It’s been an adventure. Three things: work hard, never quit, help your neighbor.
That’s so valuable for our listeners, mostly people who have a dream of starting up their own business or are in the process of it. We’ve all heard, work hard and don’t give up, especially as a startup, that’s so easy to do. You have to keep going back to the why did I start this in the first place. But really what resonates with me and makes it so unique is, you guys don’t just walk, you walk your talk, you just don’t come up with the talk.
Time and time again, this helping your neighbor from literally letting the neighbor’s goats graze on your farm for free, which then allowed you to start selling goat soap and milk, then helping people on The Amazing Race. Now you’re doing something that’s even more revolutionary. I want to sort of jump ahead.
We’ll come back to other topics, but can you tell us what you’re doing with … You were able to pay off your million dollar mortgage from winning The Amazing Race. I teased the audience a little bit. What are you doing now with something called Mortgage Lifter to, again, help your neighbors?
Before we ran The Amazing Race, our big challenge, as you said, was paying off this mortgage. We, tongue and cheek, decided we were going to sell a pasta sauce made out of an old heirloom tomato. The name of that tomato was called the Mortgage Lifter tomato. It was named that in the Great Depression by a farmer who sold so many that he paid off his mortgage. We said, we’re going to plant these tomatoes, these heirloom tomatoes, and we’re going to make a pasta sauce and that will help us pay off our mortgage.
That was in April 2012. In May, we ran The Amazing Race and we won. We had enough money to pay off our mortgage. When we returned, we had all these tomatoes out in the field and we said, you know what, we’re going to continue with our plan, call it the Mortgage Lifter, but we’re going to pay it forward. We’re going to pay our winnings forward and the profits, 25% of the profits from this product, we give back to other small farms.
The first year, we were able to give away $15,000. We recently gave away another $18,000. We really believe that we had that good fortune of getting cast on The Amazing Race and winning, and not all small farmers are going to be able to do that. We decided to pay it forward. It has now become sort of a virtuous circle, because people love that message so much that they start buying so much of the product, we weren’t able to supply the tomatoes anymore.
Now we’re able to contract with other small farms to supply the ingredients. It’s a virtuous circle. Not only are small farm ingredients going into the product, but then the profits are going back to other small farms to help them scale up.
It’s such a great story of living your brand. You have this great expression that you’re not just storytellers, which you are compelling storytellers and that’s the key obviously to pitching anything, either pitching yourself to get on the Amazing Race, pitching your products to be sold in all these stores, but you don’t just tell a story, you live the story. This is a classic example.
When you said that, “We’re not just storytellers, we’re story livers,” that resonated with me so much. I want to encourage all the listeners to think about, if you’re telling your story to a potential investor, someone who is going to carry your product, someone to join your team, are you in fact living the story that you’re telling like the Beekman men are doing? It’s just so great.
Yeah and I think that the consumer these days is so well versed in branding and …
Marketing. It’s really hard to just be a storyteller anymore, because people can see through that. They can see through a made up story or something fabricated just for the purpose of selling a product. I think a story of living is going to be much more important going forward for people who are looking for more authentic products.
Not only that, but when business people have some success based on their story, it’s often very easy to lose track of how you started. You don’t want to be the Mrs. Fields sitting at the head of a corporate table. You have to remember where you started. To that end, Brent and I, we always take every Sunday to be on the farm and working on the farm and doing all of the chores. We still do all the chores we ever did.
On Sundays, we’re not flying around the world, we’re not being business people. We’re actually living the story that we started out with. Because I think if you just stop doing that, you lose sight of what made you successful in the first place.
It’s such a great example. We hear major corporations saying how important it is for the top executives to get their hands dirty, if you will. If you’re running a hotel chain, work behind the front desk and take reservations, really get in touch. You literally are getting your hands dirty. I love that you call them chores, doing the chores around the farm to keep the farm going so that you live the brand so well.
One of the things that really impressed me on your website are all the reasons you give consumers to buy from a wide variety of your products. The fact that you have 50 artisans, so it’s everyone in the neighbor that you’re living in is benefiting from your marketing savvy, obviously, and you’re selling something unique.
That is so important when you’re pitching yourself or anything to anybody, is what makes this so unique? In a world where no matter where you go, you go to a certain place, it’s like that same product is available. Would you tell our listeners the story of how you turned a challenge with the cost of the soap into a positive? It’s such a great story and an example of unique products.
When we first started making goat milk soap, we’re struggling, we’re a new business. Then we got a call from Anthropologie and they said, “We want to buy 43,000 bars of your soap.” We thought it was the best thing to ever happen to us. We thought we were going to be rich that day. Then they said, “We only want to pay 23 cents a bar.” At the time, our cost was north of a dollar a bar.
We went to the soap maker, Deb who lives down the street from us, and we said, “How can we reduce the cost?” She said, “I just don’t know if I can do it.” We said, “What are the fix costs in this?” She said, “It’s not the ingredients. But when you make real home made, natural goat milk soap, as it cures, there’s a fine layer of ash that forms on the surface.” She said, “That’s what costs so much money. I have to go through and shave each of that layer of ash off by hand,” so there’s a labor cost, the expense.
We thought about it and we couldn’t figure out a way to get the price down. Then we realized, we said, “Deb, is it only natural soap that has that layer of ash on it?” And she said, “Yes. If you make it with chemicals, it’s super clean. You don’t have to worry about it.” Now, even today, when you buy our soap, there’s a little card inside that says, “You know this is all natural, 100% real goat milk soap because there’s a fine layer of ash on the top of it.” We turned that negative into a selling point.
I think that’s how any business is successful, is that you find a liability or an expense and you figure out how to turn that into an asset. Just like when we were first starting out and literally, we thought the only thing that we had was a million dollar mortgage. We sat down and said, “No, here are the assets that we have.” That’s what a lot of people don’t do when they get mired down in the liabilities, in the expenses, is think, is take a step back and say, “Yes, I might have those liabilities and expenses, but let me do an inventory of my assets and how can I use those to solve a problem in a creative way.”
We’re going to tweet that out. How can I use my assets to solve a problem in a creative way? It’s so useful in this example of, “We have goats, we’re going to make goat soap. Oh, but wait, there’s a problem.” That’s the number one issue that investors ask startups when they’re asking for investment, is what’s the cost of acquiring a new customer, what’s the cost of your product versus what you’re selling it for?
You had what seemed to be an insurmountable distance between your cost to make the soap and what the store was willing to pay for it, and yet you figured out a way to get the cost down and turn that, the reason why we’re so expensive into a positive that then it makes it unique and makes people connect to your brand.
The story just goes on and on and there’s so many lessons there. It’s absolutely fantastic. The other thing that you have on your site that is … When I talk to investors and I say, “What’s your criteria for funding a startup?” They’ll say, “We invest in the jockey, not the horse.” It’s all about the team. You guys certainty, as a team together, have been through all kinds of challenges of your relationship and being laid off and working together and pulling together.
What you created and that you are so open with on your website, Beekman1802, is what kind of culture are we having and how do we pay our people? It reminds me a lot of Howard Schultz giving benefits to his part time employees way before benefits were a common thing. Can you share with us your philosophy of compensation and your team and what you look for in your team?
Our company is headquartered in a very small village in rural upstate New York. One of the most conservative and impoverished counties in all of New York state. Attracting job candidates is pretty difficult. Not only do we seek to offer people something that’s relatively competitive from a salary and benefits package, but offer people a chance to be a part of something with a bigger mission.
I think that’s what’s resonating with so many of the young people who are joining team Beekman. We’re still a relatively small company. I think eleven full time employees. I think everyone who works here sees a much bigger picture and being a part of that.
There’s not a lot of opportunities in rural areas to grow, so we have a growing business and it’s a place that you can actually grow your career. A lot of very talented and intelligent people don’t want to rush head long into the cities anymore. How can we create a company that could offer you a career, but still be in a rural area?
We opened up our flagship store here in Sharon Springs, New York. There was a lot of deliberation about whether we should invest in creating a flagship retail location in this little village.
When we sat down and, again, it was being the jockey and trying to think about where this is going to go. We looked at companies like L.L. Bean in Maine or Orvus or Vermont Country Store, which are similarly located in very rural environments but have become destinations. Now, what we’ve seen, by putting so much effort into the flagship store and investments into the flagship store …
Because our model for the flagship retail store was the old grand department stores in New York City where they paid attention to every single fixture and every single detail. It’s not about how much product can we cram on the shelf and discount it and what not.
We really did want to create this old school retail experience. Now we do have people who come from all over the world just to see this retail store in this little tiny town, Sharon Springs, New York. It really worked for us to do that. Likewise, it gives a reason for the brain drain in this area to stop. For decades, there were no opportunities for kids. When we graduate our 25 kids from the high school each year, there was no opportunity for them. By doing, by creating this brand, we create reasons for people to stay around.
It goes back to, once again, you’re helping your neighbors, which is just amazing. You have so many products that are so unique and specific to your brand. I want to talk about your cook book and being invited to ring the bell at NASDAQ. What a huge honor. Can you take us back that day? What did it feel like? Tell us some of the reasons. This is your chance to brag a little bit, or I’m happy to do it for you, on how you think they selected you. People write books all the time and launch a book, but very few authors get invited to ring the NASDAQ bell.
Again, I think that NASDAQ is an exchange for discoveries and innovation. They were looking for new business, I think they were looking for small businesses who represented something different and a new way of thinking. Obviously for them, they’re trying to highlight businesses that they think at one point will be listed on the NASDAQ exchange.
They really approached us because they were interested in our story and the type of business that we’re growing and the type of fundamentals we were sitting so that we could be the representation of what they stand for. For us, it was just a huge marketing opportunity because you’re not only ringing the bell and getting the experience of doing that. But for five minutes, they’re putting your brand on the billboard at Time Square and for all the world to see.
It’s just a really once in a life time opportunity for us and we were so happy to be selected. Again, I think it goes back to beginning authentic and not only telling the story, but living the story.
Great. Let’s talk a little bit, just because I want the listeners to really remember this tomato sauce for the Mortgage Lifter. How can people support that? It’s only sold at Target and you have something really clever about pictures that I think would be fun to hear.
It’s not only sold at Target. You can buy it on our website. You can also find it at Disney Resorts, actually.
They choose a handful of small American companies to feature in the resorts and Beekman and Mortgage Lifter was one of them.
One of our challenges, of course, now we were on the shelves of a major national retailer and we’re sitting next to Prego and Ragu and they have giant marketing budgets and couponing and you’re in every newspaper every week. We didn’t know how we could counter that.
And cheaper product.
And cheaper product. We decided we needed to get the story out. We turned to social media, we have a wonderful social media following. We call all of our followers Beekman neighbors. We called upon all of our Beekman neighbors to help us get the word out in lieu of a big ad campaign. We said, “It’s you guys, you have to get the word out.” We invented something called the Shelfie instead of a selfie. The week it launched, we said go to Target … We knew they all wanted to buy the sauce. They’ve been part of the project. They were as excited as we were. It was in Target.
We said, “Go to Target, clear out the shelf, take a picture of you with this empty shelf holding a jar of sauce and call it a Shelfie, and post it on your Facebook page.” We had tens of thousands of people posting a Shelfie of them and the sauce, and then all of their friends were saying, “What is that? I’ve never heard of that. Why are you doing this?” We really, again, we turned to our Beekman neighbors to help us.
Leveraging your social media following to become brand ambassadors so that word spreads virally and people are feeling good about paying more for a product that’s worth more because it’s from farmers. It’s actually why we pay more for organic food, even though it’s in a can. Not only are you doing something good for yourself by buying products that are healthier, but you’re making a difference in the world and then having fun with social media all at the same time.
It’s just such a great example of creativity, overcoming how do you compete with the big guys, which leads me to, I want to have you just chat with our listeners about some of the things you’ve learned from having goats. I remember you talk about don’t fight with a big goat or something along those lines.
You have to know who the goat is with the big horns. Anybody who’s watched goats at play or in a pasture will know that they’re always butting heads.
The goat with the bigger horn always wins. It just does.
The lesson that we learned about that is that regardless of what business you’re going into or what community you’re working in, you always need to identify who the goat is with the biggest horns.
Don’t go up against that person, don’t go fight against your competition that’s bigger than you are. Either work with them or go your own way.
If going your own way, understand that knowing the goat who has the biggest horns, you’re going to ave to strategize around how to get around those bigger horns. Whether you’re going to use them to your benefit or you’re going to to run the other way, you still have to identify who that goat is with the biggest horns.
One of the examples that we use for that is Martha Stewart. Brent worked for Martha Stewart for many years and then in the recession, when Martha had to close his division, of course Martha laid off Brent as part of the downsizing. When we launched our company, a lot of reporters wanted to use that fact in our favor and say, “You guys are the new Martha Stewarts. How do you feel, you were laid off from Martha Stewart, now you’re building this big brand? Isn’t this sort of pay back or are you the anti-Marthas?”
In reality, Martha has been a fantastic supported and a wonderful partner. She has bigger horns than we do, so we knew it was futile to try and take that position of being the anti-Martha or we’re going to be bigger than Martha or better than Martha. Instead say, “No, she’s the master, she’s the Goddess and she’s always been supportive of us and continues to be supportive of us.”
Yes, she even came to your wedding, for God sakes. That really shows how wonderful it can be when you align with other people doing similar things, not direct competitors or even direct competitors. Just when you have that mindset, it’s so useful. Is there anything else that you’ve learned from your goats that you can share as a metaphor for our listeners in the startup world?
We should maybe give one more. What’s our other favorite one?
What about the first goat down?
I love that.
Goats, there’s no place more comfortable than someone else’s tummy. That’s what we learned from them. What you see with our goats, when they all come in at the end of the day, they come in and they stand around, stand around. Because they live in a barn and the barn floor is hard and it’s not the most pleasant.
One of them lays down, and then that first goat lays down, the next goat lays down and puts his head on their stomach and then it continues down. Every goat puts their head on someone else’s stomach because it’s more comfortable. We always say, sometimes you have to be that first goat down and go ahead and take the sacrifice and be the one that lays down on the cold hard floor.
If you’re working in a team or a community and …
You find everyone complaining.
Everyone’s complaining, maybe you’re complaining that things aren’t getting done. That’s because someone has not agreed to be the first goat to lay down. Someone has to be that first goat so that someone else has the tummy to lay on.
I love it.
A lot of people don’t learn that lesson.
If you are, then things get down and things move forward. Do you have any last minute tips you can give our listeners? Obviously, you’ve had to pitch your whole career to get stores to carry your products. When you’re pitching yourself to a new store, whether it’s Target or Disney Resorts, is there something you do or say that makes it useful? Do you tell stories? How do you get people to understand and want to buy your product?
Every product that we design is directly inspired by the farm. We don’t start out designing a product with a niche already in mind. We don’t look at the market and say, “There’s not this, let’s create that to fill this void.” We are creating things that we need on the farm and are inspired by what we’re directly doing on the farm. When we go in to talk about a product, we tell the entire creation story about how this product was formed and why it’s different than the next thing sitting on the shelf.
As I said, all these people who work in retail, they understand that today’s consumer can read through any brand building BS. By being able to tell that creation story, they understand that what we’re creating is different than what someone else might be pitching them.
We also find ourselves, when we walk into a room, just having conversations. I think when you fall into the mode of, “We’re pitching you something and we’re going to see if you bite,” we see it more as it’s going to be a partnership and we’re going to present our story, our wares, our ideas.
The person on the other side, they’re either going to accept and become a partner or not. It’s not a game to try to get them to be a partner. It’s they’re either the right person on the other side of the table or they’re not. If they’re not, nobody goes home upset. It’s just not meant to be.
Pitching yourself and your product is always in terms of how you’re going to help that other person’s business.
I can think of no good outcome than having to convince someone to work with you.
Right. That’s incredibly valuable information. It really is a partnership and you’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you. Therefore, you’re not begging or pushing. You’re just saying, “Here’s who we are. Let’s see if this is a fit. If it’s not, no hard feelings.” That reduces the stress and the pressure on you and the person that you’re pitching yourself to, would you agree?
My other tip is sit on the same side of the table. In my years of advertising, there was always the agency on one side and the client on the other side. I learned that if I sat down right next to the client instead of the other side of the table …
That’s a great tip, Josh. Thank you. You literally turn your neck to the left or right when you’re talking to them as oppose to … Wow, body language, everything, you can never get enough of those tips. That’s fantastic. How can people follow you guys on social media, go to your website and sign up for your newsletter? Tell us all the goodies.
Our website is Beekman1802.com. If you send an email through the website, Josh and I read every single email still. We manage all of our social media accounts. We’re on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter and YouTube. We’re Beekman1802Boys. Again, if you send us a question on any social media or respond to something we posted, it’s the two of us. We’re the only two with access to our social media. You’re getting an authentic response when we respond.
Just like the soap.
Just like the soap.
Fantastic. What’s next for you? Do you do a one year plan or a big plan? Do you have, we want to be at a 100 artisans a year from now? Or how does that all come together?
We try to launch about 20 new products a month.
We try to keep it very interesting and refreshing. Most of our products are still very artisanal and small runs. We know that there’s not going to be a single product that’s going to be a billion dollar product. We try to meet our customer expectations by always offering something new and something unique and in small runs, so that when you get something from Beekman, it’s going to be special. We always want to maintain that specialness.
If people are looking for anything specific coming up, we have our style book coming out in September. We have our magazine, new magazine launch coming out in October called Beekman Almanac. Towards the end of the year, we’re hoping to have a bigger relationship with Target to announce.
Oh, how exciting. We’ll be working for that. Your tag line is, The Farm is Bigger Than Its Fences. I just love, and I think that’s a great way to end the show. No matter whether it’s your own farm, like you literally have a farm, or your farm metaphorically is your business. Just remember, it’s bigger than whatever boundaries you initially physically put up and you’ll be successful, like these guys.
Thanks for joining us today.
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